Monday, July 5, 2010

In the Attic With Ben H. Winters

I conducted this interview to coincide with the publication of Winters' book Android Karenina — and then it never ran where it was supposed to. Much belatedly, here we are:

How did you make the jump from Austen to Tolstoy?

Quirk Books and I knew by the time we were done with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters that it was time to expand the franchise beyond Austen. Austen was great as the first “victim” of this idea, since her style is so prim and proper. We hit on Tolstoy next since he wrote great books, very important and serious literature, but he’s not like Dickens -- Tolstoy isn’t in any way silly on his own. You can give him many positive adjectives but “laugh out loud” is not one of them. His work calls out for this type of parody, whereas with other authors, trying to add levity gets in the way of the silliness already there.

Had you read Anna Karenina before sitting down to write the mash-up? What were your feelings on it?

I had read Anna Karenina several times and loved it. Before taking on the parody I needed to refresh myself with the plots and characters but I did know it and love it before.

How did you decide what to change in the world to incorporate robots?

It was tricky because the original is so long. It was pretty clear from the outset that the final version could not be as long as the original version — Anna Karenina is 800 or 900 pages. So the first step was abridgment, which was not as hard as it might have been — Tolstoy writes a lot into his books beyond the main plot. In his life when he became interested in agriculture or science or philosophy, suddenly a character would discuss it. I winnowed out what wasn’t central to the love story or the action story, and I had a shorter book.

Where did you go from there?

It was time to start reinventing, making big decisions and seeing how they play out in small ways. The first big decision was deciding where the technology was going to come from, so I created a miracle metal, discovered in the Russian soil around the time of Ivan the Terrible, and the metal enables the technology in the book. Once I figured this out, it allowed me to start reshaping characters. Levin is one of the Tolstoy protagonists, and in the original, he’s a landowner who owns huge estates, but in my version, he’s a miner who owns a huge mine that mined by robots.

Since Anna Karenina is written in Russian, you couldn’t use the original. What translation did you use?

The one by Constance Garnett. Anna Karenina is in the public domain, but the translation is not necessarily in the public domain. I couldn’t use the one from six or seven years ago by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that was part of Oprah’s book club, but the Garnett is a staple translation. Because this is a mash-up, I also had more freedom to play around with the text — if I found a sentence that wasn’t fluidly translated, I could recast the original sentence even if not adding to it.

What were some of the differences between working with Austen and Tolstoy?

Austen is a much more contained writer, while Tolstoy… writes on a huge scope. His books are epic, vast things that cover years and years and dozens of characters. Austen uses a more limited range of characters and situations. The vastness of Tolstoy’s world meshed nicely with the grand vision of science fiction. Classic science fiction works take place on a grand scale, and they feel really Tolstoyan in breadth and depth.

In what way do you think the addition of robots and such adds to thinking about Tolstoy’s novel?

One thing it does is give the feeling of more forward motion. Anna Karenina is a beautifully plotted story, but it gets baggy in parts… making it a challenge to stay with the story. By adding some very plot heavy stuff, I made it, an action adventure with lots of plot, foreshadowing and tensions — the things contemporary readers look to to stay hooked in. This version has wizard aliens, and talking robots, and lasers — all the stuff Tolstoy forgot to put in.

1 comment: